Responding to peak gasoline

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While controversial new extraction techniques have quieted predictions of imminent global “peak oil” production that were rampant just a few years back, it’s becoming clear that another kind of petroleum maximum was reached nearly a decade ago.

Since 2004, through boom and bust economic cycles, U.S. consumption of gasoline has steadily declined along with parallel drops in miles traveled and the overall number of light-duty cars and trucks on the roads. According to University of Michigan automobility researcher Michael Sivak, American drivers burned almost 15 billion gallons less in 2011 than in the peak year of 2004, a decline of 11 percent.

“Given that the maxima in the fuel-consumption rates occurred several years prior to the … economic downturn, these maxima have a good chance of being permanent peaks,” Sivak was quoted in Scientific American.

Along with less driving spurred by rising urbanization and transportation alternatives, plus communications and retailing advances that can replace travel altogether, sharply improved vehicle mileage is also behind petrol’s waning. And that’s been driven by a combination of higher prices at the pump and federal fuel economy standards that tighten to fleetwide averages of 34.1 miles per gallon in 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. The latest figure across 2013 models: 29.8 mpg, a bit ahead of what’s expected to stay on pace.

This is all terrific news for both the environment and the economy. It also rebuts claims that better fuel efficiency would only result in more driving. “It seems to turn the conventional wisdom about a rebound effect on its head,” Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Scientific American. “Basically, efficiency and reduced driving are in the ring with oil dependence, and they’ve struck a double blow against it.”

And the only obvious downside can be fixed with smart policy shifts. Less gas consumption means less fuel tax money to operate a road system that remains an important key to our prosperity. It’s aproblem at both the state and federal levels, with the U.S. Highway Trust Fund headed for bankruptcy next year, no thanks to per-gallon tax rates that haven’t budged in two decades.

Besides de-linking transportation revenue from dependence on “ever more driving and fuel consumption,” as Lovaas put it, a greater emphasis on maintaining existing roads and bridges and less on expansion is needed. That, along with development of more alternatives, is just common sense if we’re driving and burning gas a lot less than before.